Scholar as Pilgrim: Insights From Along the Way

Martha Ellen Stortz

GTU Commencement: Faculty Remarks

May 13, 2010

President Donahue, Chairman Leach, Dean Holder, Deans Kook and Maloney, Presidents and Deans of the Consortial Schools, Directors and Faculty of the Centers, Faculty of the Union, GTU Staff and Administrators, Family and Friends of the Graduates, Graduates of the various GTU degree programs:

It is an honor to be here and to offer particular congratulations to the graduates of 2010. We gather—with high delight!—to celebrate you.

I gave Dean Maloney a title, but in the intervening weeks, the ghost behind the computer screen refused to deliver up the talk to go with that title. I’ve been traveling, and she nudged me to take that seriously, as a prompt for the road ahead of you. You may frame that as “finding a job.” In that frame, the road looks like a means of connecting the dots between point A—that would be here, commencement—and point B—that would be a position.

But the ghost in the machine and I urge you not to think in terms of job, but in terms of journey, not a new one, but one that continues the path you’ve begun here at the GTU. Framing the future in terms of journey, not job makes the path as important as the position. That’s what needs to be said today, then, and the title of this talk, accordingly, is: “Scholar as Pilgrim: Insights from Along the Way.”

With colleague Lisa Fullam at JST and under the auspices of a Lilly Collaborative Research grant, I have spent the last year on a journey, studying how immersion trips and cross-cultural experiences constitute a post-modern expression of the ancient practice of pilgrimage. Yes, we walked a long segment of the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, so we—and our feet!—would know what we were talking about. Then with eight seminarians, we spent two weeks as participants in a cross–cultural program in Mexico City. We concluded the grant with a visit to Santa Clara University’s intensive semester-long immersion in El Salvador, and we were privileged to be there during the 30th anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination. Three very different settings, and all of them illuminating a dimension of pilgrimage, which writer, scholar of religions, and fellow-traveler Phil Cousineau defines as “a transformative journey toward a sacred center” (1).

You graduates feel that sense of journey now as transition: you are setting out, one foot raised to meet the road ahead. Here are three insights from along the way.

First, pilgrimage and scholarship each involve a kind of intentional dislocation. Pilgrims pack up for a destination as yet unseen through a terrain decidedly unknown. They take maps, but, as historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith acutely observed, map is not territory (2). Our maps made no mention of the golf course that welcomed pilgrims —well we all had packs, ours were just grimier. And no map could have captured the piety of pilgrims in that rose garden at the UCA (Universidad Centroamericana) in San Salvador, where the six Jesuit priests were martyred along with the housekeeper and her daughter. Indeed, dislocating ourselves to El Salvador opened a tiny window into the experience of a people whom decades of civil war had already violently dislocated, driving them from villages in the middle of the night. They took only what they could run with, and we listened to the story of Gris, who decades later returned to the ruins of her childhood home in search of the doll she had left behind.

Pilgrims intentionally the familiar behind for a road that will be long, slow, and hard in ways that, at the outset, you can hardly imagine, much less prepare for.

Sounds a lot like writing a dissertation or thesis, doesn’t it? Creative scholarship demands dislocation, inviting a critical and honest engagement with the unfamiliar. You’ve practiced that at the GTU. Continue to visit the other “the other side” of an argument, a position, or an ideology you hold dear. Continue to deploy a hermeneutics of generosity before you bring out the razor of suspicion, and remember what Karl Barth said of Friedrich Schleiermacher, a theologian whom he was not disposed to like: he who has not first worshiped here cannot criticize either. Continue to test your positions against someone who doesn’t think the way you do, doesn’t worship the gods you revere, doesn’t come from your part of the world, and whose face is not the color of yours. Live inside that skin for awhile. Deliberately associate “outside your tribe.” Search out the truths that fall between books and refereed journals, truths like Gris’ story, which come from the mouth and not the printed page. Your work will be better for it.

Second, trust what you know. Before we started walking, a friend gave me a piece of advice that sounded more like a Zen koan: “You walk your own Camino.” I frowned and thought: “Who else would carry the stuff across the top of Spain?”

But about a week into the trek, I realized I wasn’t walking my own Camino, I was walking the one in our guidebook (3), which I reverenced as if it were a sacred text and ritually consulted every morning for the day’s destination and historic sights along the way. And it was all very helpful, utterly hypothetical, and not at all mine. It didn’t tell me how far I needed to go each day—and what I needed to see. It was an enormous relief to unburden that, and begin listening more to my own feet, “letting the body mentor the soul” (4).

You, incipient scholars, you too walk your own Camino. Walter Benjamin may point the way across the border, but never made it, tragically dying footsteps ahead of the Nazis. And you are still here, “severely damaged, but functioning” (5). Take Benjamin’s counsel, but leave his body behind. You will make it to Spain, as he did not. Your scholarly agenda need no longer be set by advisors or readers; nor need we any longer tell you what to do. Take our tools, if you wish, but don’t fight our battles. We’re not directors any more, but fellow travelers, pilgrims along the way. Your journey will be very different from ours, but we all need one another to go forward.

“You walk your own Camino:” another shaft of insight in this mantra is that you can’t walk someone else’s. When I was in graduate school, everyone wanted to walk Karl Rahner’s Camino, and at 8 am every morning the Swift Kick, which was the Divinity School coffee shop at the University of Chicago, sounded like a frog pond. Everyone was hyper-caffeinated and croaking on and on about Rahner-Rahner-Rahner. We all wanted to be Karl Rahner, and we leapt and scrambled all over one another to see who could jump highest, leap furthest, and croak loudest.

But the point of walking your own Camino is not being the best Karl Rahner—but being the best you, in your body and in your context for the sake of a world that desperately the wisdom only you can offer.

Third, take what you need for the journey—and only what you need. Like all first-time pilgrims, we packed too much stuff, every ounce of which began to register on the soles of our feet (6). Early on we started leaving things behind—that extra shirt, the paperback we thought we’d read, even the binding from a hard-bound book, which we surgically removed somewhere near Burgos. Stuff that had seemed so essential back in Berkeley, we now recognized as just dead weight. We made little shrines of our excess baggage, took a mental snapshot—and left without looking back.

Don’t be afraid to do the same. Like first-time pilgrims, newly-minted scholars feel they have to provide every footnote, cite every authority, demonstrate their comprehensive grasp of a field of study. This is scholarship as a giant comps exam, and it’s not what the world needs from you. What we need is your voice, your own scholarly voice, or to use language that fits the metaphor of pilgrimage, your own scholarly path. You’ll find that—I think GTU students find it more quickly, because the programs encourage a kind of self-direction and scholarly entrepreneurship. Find your distinctive path—and follow it to that sacred center.

Like pilgrims, but unlike so many other scholars, you scholars of religion and theology, you have a language to describe what’s sacred about that “sacred center” to which Cousineau referred. People yearn to hear someone give voice to their deepest longings. You can do that—and you can do it in a way that connects with the world’s deepest needs.

Do it, without apology and with all the eloquence you can muster. That’s where all this “homework,” as Matthew put it, hits the ground.

In conclusion, I leave you two pilgrim greetings, which seem particularly appropriate for scholarly peregrination. Though they may start as seekers, questing for that sacred center, pilgrims finally are cheerleaders. Ironically, their chief goal—and you only discover this by walking—is not to reach the destination, but to encourage one another along the way. It’s a great model for scholars, sadly all too rarely employed. Pilgrims recognize—as scholars often do not—that we need one another more than we know.

Meeting a fellow-traveler along the way, pilgrims would shout out the word “Ultreya!” — “Onward!” And hearing that at the end of a long day is worth about 400 mgs of Ibuprofen. Then, when they arrive at their destination—whether Santiago de Compostela, or the Rose Garden at the UCA in San Salvador— those who have gotten there before greet the new arrivals with a shout of “Suseya!” a greeting which can only be translated: “Upward!”

You, graduates of the class of 2010, have completed this stage of a long, hard, and surprising journey. For all you have done: “Suseya!” And for the road that lies ahead: “Ultreya!” Onward and upward.

We’ve got your backs—if not your backpacks!


(1) Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (San Francisco: Conari Press, 1998), xxiii.

(2) Jonathan Z. Smith, Map is not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

(3) John Brierley, A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago—St. Jean, Roncesvalles, Santiago: A Practical & Mystical Manual for the Modern Day Pilgrim (Findhorn, Scotland: Findhorn Press/Camino Guides, 2009).

(4) Letting the body mentor the soul is, after all, the point of a practice, spiritual, philosophical, or otherwise, as Matthew Haar Farris points out in his talk for this commencement. The phrase is from Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia, 1988).

(5) Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was a Jewish philosopher, literary critic, and sociologist, famous for his writing and work on the Arcades Project. Fleeing the Nazis, he and his party were told on the French-Spanish border that they would be refused passage, and Benjamin took his life that night. The poetry is from John Berryman’s “Eleven Addresses to the Lord: 1” Love & Fame (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 79.

(6) TMS, “Too Much Stuff,” quickly became a pilgrim’s shorthand for the therapist’s TMI, “Too Much Information.